Community participation key to reversing the global learning crisis

A grandmother and her grandchildren in Bushenyi District Uganda read an Uwezo report on learning outcomes. April 2012

A grandmother and her grandchildren in Bushenyi District Uganda read an Uwezo report on learning outcomes. April 2012

As we approach the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)and the Education for All (EFA) targets, there is much to celebrate. Since 2000, when the MDGs and the EFA goals were set, around 45 million children who previously did not have access to education have enrolled in primary school, and gender parity in primary education has improved significantly.

Yet the work ahead is urgent and formidable.

250 million children – or around 40 % of all primary school age children in the world – either, never enrol in school, fail to make it to the fourth year of their education or, if they do manage this, are not learning to read even basic sentences.

It comes as no surprise that the parents of these children are frustrated. Parents want their children to learn and acquire vital new skills that will assist them in education and future employment, but, in far too many places around the world, the education system is failing them.

Unmet aspirations and frustration with unresponsive systems

In ‘Right to learn: community participation in improving learning’ a ground breaking new report, Save the Children, gives voice to the aspirations and frustrations of parents from Brazil, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Nepal, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

Despite the diversity of the countries in which they live they all share an expectation that their children learn basic reading, writing and math skills at school. However, they also have a shared experience of how difficult it is  to hold schools, service providers and governments accountable when their children are not learning.

Parental engagement improves learning outcomes

But it’s not all bad news.

‘Right to learn’ also illustrates how, in all of these places innovative civil society organizations, with deep roots in communities are driving system wide change in education and in turn, improving learning outcomes for children.

The report includes case studies from ASER in India and Pakistan and Uwezo in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda who are all using a common model to promote improvements in educational quality and learning outcomes, based on three pillars:

  • measure to understand
  • understand to communicate, and
  • communicate to change.
Children looking at an Uwezo Poster, Kumi District, Uganda, April 2012

Children looking at an Uwezo Poster, Kumi District, Uganda, April 2012

Information, understanding and change in East Africa

Using this approach, Uwezo by way of example, conducts annual household assessments of basic literacy and numeracy levels in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Every year, Uwezo partners with over 350 local organizations to mobilize and train over 22,000 citizens to conduct the survey.  In 2012, the Uwezo army of citizen volunteers assessed a total of 343,104 children in 124,627 households from 362 districts across East Africa.

The annual assessments collect data that, once analyzed and shared, is used to promote countrywide conversations and debates about learning, using radio and television for wide reach.

Uwezo believes that the drive for more accountability will ultimately come if parents, as the largest constituency of concerned citizens, are able to be involved and participate in the success of their children’s school. The report also highlights the work of Equal Education in South Africa and Ação Educativa in Brazil, who are also using data to catalyse parental and wider community action to improve educational quality.

The power and potential of increased accountability

All of the examples in ‘Right to learn’ illustrate the power and potential of accountability relationships between citizen and service provider to strengthen the quality of publicly funded education and, in doing so, improve the learning outcomes of millions of children currently being failed by state education.

Though each country context is different, the case studies point to a number of themes that emerge as central to the effectiveness of local level accountability irrespective of context.

  1. Fostering the engagement and participation of ordinary citizens, including the most marginalized
  2. Agreeing on minimum standards
  3. Collecting and communicating local data to genuinely inform and empower
  4. Empowering communities to create their own solutions to local issues and acknowledging their roles in improving learning
  5. Linking local accountability to national system reform

Accountability: a key to local, national and international action on education

Increasing the accountability of schools to parents has the potential to transform education provision and learning outcomes for all children by raising the quality of publically funded schools.

If we are serious about reversing the crisis in learning, as we continue to debate a post-2015 agenda for education we need to ensure that the frameworks for international and national action will both respond to and harness the voice of children’s parents and carers and the communities from which they come.

This article was first published on December 23, 2013 on the Global Partnership for Education, Education for All blog.